Dialect Study

This group project is an open-ended investigation of the way English sounds in different situations, to different people. You will need to figure out your own topic, questions, and conclusions: it’s not about reaching a single correct answer. Most of your work will be during class time.

To find out what group you’re in and to contact one another, log into Blackboard > “Groups” > “Dialect.”


1. Reflect

Think about the kinds of code-switching you perform in your everyday life. Have you ever felt like a conversational outsider? Are there any words you write frequently but would never say aloud? Do your parents/grandparents/aunts and uncles say anything really embarrassing? What do you think about the idea that your gender, age, and personality traits can be determined from your Facebook posts (in Schwartz et al)?

Has anyone ever told you not to say like so much? Or have you ever inserted a like, um, or uh in order to sound more natural?

Two words might mean the same thing, but present us with different circumstances. Is there a difference between working your butt off and working your ass off?

Do you enjoy reading novels written in the first person (“Call me Ishmael”)? What makes a narrator’s “voice” most distinctive?


2. Choose a topic

It should be something concrete and manageable–maybe a few words or a particular social interaction. “Women at work” or “Asian-American dialects” would be too broad for this exercise. Don’t choose a hard-and-fast rule of grammar or spelling; we’re interested in flexible or ambiguous conventions.

A note about respect: Language prejudice is often tied to histories of racism and inequality, and taboo words usually have something to do with sex or other bodily functions. Nothing is off limits for this assignment. However, you must be willing to take your material seriously, and recognize that not everyone in your group will share your experiences. This is a research project, not an opportunity to be willfully offensive.


3. Research it.

Find out a bit about your word/phrase (etc.). Whom do we expect to use it, and who actually uses it? When and where did it originate? You might begin to orient yourself with an anecdote: a story from your past, or a celebrity who attracts attention for speaking a certain way. Then, use at least one of these resources to gather information:

  • Brigham Young University’s Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), which we’ll discuss in class. You can download a guide to using to the corpus (PDF) created by Jin Kim of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
  • Corpus of Global Web-Based English: The same interface as COCA. Websites organized by country, starting in 2012.
  • Corpus of Historical American English: again, using the COCA interface. Use this one if you want to see how people wrote and spoke as far back as 1810.
  • The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE), a collection of transcripts organized by the on-campus activity (class discussion, dissertation defense) and the speakers’ academic rank (students, grad students, professors)
  • Words across Age (compiled by psychologists at Penn) compares the relative frequency of words and phrases in 75,000 Facebook users’ posts
  • The n-gram feature of Google Books charts the relative frequency of words and phrases in books published between 1800 and 2000.
  • Upload any text or URL to Voyant to visualize it using statistical tools.

Finally, think about possible axes of comparison (region, time period, medium, and so on). What kinds of challenges might you run into when you try to figure out someone’s social class or level of education?


4. Take an informed position, and teach us a lesson.

Some ideas: a usage guide (see “How to Use an Apostrophe” from The Oatmeal), a historical map, or a defense of a stigmatized word. Present it in a multimodal document with linguistic and visual/spatial elements. For tips on combining the linguistic, visual and spatial modes, see Writer/Designer.

There should be at least 300 words of text (essay/description), which can be part of the graphical piece or a separate essay. Text visualization tools such as Voyant or Textexture are good for analyzing and presenting long texts visually, and Piktochart and Easel.ly are free tools for creating infographics. The final product might be a PDF file or a link to a web page (it could be one on one of your personal WordPress pages).


5. Cite all of your sources.

If you’re comfortable using MLA or Chicago documentation style, use one of those. If not, that’s okay for now. For each source you consult, include all of these details (where applicable): the authors, titles, publication (e.g., newspaper/magazine), date of publication, and URLs. This can be a on separate Works Cited page.


Due on Blackboard at 9 p.m. on Wed., Sept. 10.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s